Some scientists get the Nobel Prize. A few get to appear on popular TV. Then you have the one who's on "The Daily Show," is an Internet meme and trades lines with Superman in a comic book, all while publishing in prestigious journals and running a renowned planetarium.
You know we must be talking about Neil deGrasse Tyson, the African-American astrophysicist with the uncanny ability to reduce complex cosmic concepts into ideas the average person understands and finds entertaining. No wonder he has such a following among geeks and non-geeks alike.
Tyson is the Harvard- and Columbia-educated director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Throughout his career, he has taken his knowledge and enthusiasm for astronomy into television series, presentations and books aimed at nonscientists [source: Hayden Planetarium]. And he's also reached some milestones that few other mortals can claim. Let's discuss.
Was Once Voted 'Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive'
Tyson once described his high school persona as "a nerd who could kick your butt." That muscular physique -- plus his charisma and good looks -- caused People magazine to name him Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive (perhaps the only astrophysicist to win that distinction).
"As passionate about earthly pleasures as those celestial, the 6'2" Tyson indulges his love of wine and gourmet cooking while succumbing to the gravitational pull of his wife of 12 years, mathematical physics Ph.D. Alice Young," the magazine breathlessly wrote in 2000.
There were clues to Tyson's sexiness early on. He earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Columbia, but it was a very popular course on astronomy for nonscientists he taught at Princeton that foreshadowed his penchant for the public eye. With a knack for helping create a scientifically literate population and a blooming career as an author, the Hayden Planetarium was compelled to offer him a job [source: Hayden Planetarium, Lemonick].
Drove the Getaway Car At Pluto's Demise
The model you made of Earth's solar system in elementary school is obsolete. If it includes Pluto, anyway.
Thanks to a controversial August 2006 demotion, Pluto was rendered a dwarf planet. And Neil deGrasse Tyson helped lead the charge by refusing to refer to Pluto as the solar system's ninth planet in the Hayden Planetarium's display. Pluto, with its elongated orbit and 50 percent ice composition, was too different from the other planets, Tyson insisted; it was simply the first of a new class of objects that weren't realized until the early 1990s [source: NPR].
Pluto and Tyson, who were dubbed "frenemies," began a complicated relationship that played out in the media. While Tyson's been quick to say he wasn't solely responsible for Pluto's "killing off" as a planet, he admits he was an accessory to the fact. "All I did was drive the getaway car" [source: Houston].
Professionally, Tyson stands by his actions. Personally, however, his feelings remain mixed. So much so that three years after Pluto's demotion, he opened up on his blog. "I feel compelled to defend Pluto's honor," Tyson wrote. "It lives deeply in our 20th century culture and consciousness and somehow rounds out the diversity of our family of planets like the troubled sibling of a large family."
Got the Night Sky Changed in 'Titanic'
You know an astrophysicist has star power when he can demand changes in a blockbuster movie before it is rereleased to the public. Turns out, James Cameron's 1997 movie "Titanic" depicted the wrong night sky in one of the most memorable scenes illustrating the ocean liner's descent on April 15, 1912.
Tyson wrote Cameron to tell him the stars were not in alignment -- or even in the right ballpark -- when Kate Winslet (who played Rose in the movie) was clinging to a piece of driftwood in the ocean and gazing up at the heavens.
During a panel discussion at St. Petersburg College, Fla., Tyson said, "There is only one sky she should have been looking at ... and it was the wrong sky! Worse than that ... the left half of the sky was a mirror reflection of the right half of the sky. It was not only wrong, it was lazy."
After getting no response, Tyson brought the matter up with Cameron when the two met face-to-face at an event. The director's response? According to Tyson, he drily said, "Last I checked, Titanic had grossed $1.3 billion worldwide. Think how much more it would have grossed if I'd gotten the sky correct."
But Tyson later got a call from someone on Cameron's post-production team who asked him for the correct star alignment and adjusted the shot before the movie's 2012 re-release [sources: Judkis, O'Neill].
Hosts His Own Podcast
Scoring a big-name interview for any podcast is quite a coup. Tyson, however, is light-years ahead of the crowd. In 2014, he interviewed "God" on his podcast, "StarTalk," billed as the "first and only popular commercial radio program devoted to all things space." Turns out, the "god" in question was the same person behind @TheTweetofGod. But it was still an interesting conversation about evolution, aliens, miracles, string theory and sports [source: Tickle].
Although the podcast is sometimes tongue-in-cheek and slightly irreverent, it's always rich with scientific theory and astrophysical findings, as well as pop culture and humor [source: StarTalk Radio].
Chatted With Superman
When was the last time you picked up a comic book and discovered one of the world's reigning astrophysicists immortalized in picture and panel? No, we hadn't seen one either. Until Neil deGrasse Tyson's pivotal appearance in Action Comics 14, the one where he helps Superman catch a glimpse of his home planet.
When DC Comics asked Tyson to let them use his likeness in the comic book, he not only said yes, he offered to ground the storyline in scientific fact.
Since it wouldn't be possible to see a planet as far away as Krypton (if it existed), Tyson chose an actual red star named LHS 2520 for Krypton to orbit. Then, adding a bit of fiction, Tyson had Superman harness the power of all the telescopes on Earth to view the explosion of his home planet, which actually happened 27 years in the past but was just now visible on Earth (thanks to the speed of light and other laws of the universe).
The awesomeness of Superman aside, perhaps the best thing about Action Comics 14 is seeing Tyson drawn wearing one of his signature star-themed vests [source: Holmes].
Hosted the 'Cosmos' Reboot
Thirty-four years after "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage" debuted, a fan helped bring it to life again. Only this was no ordinary fan. It was Neil deGrasse Tyson, who in 2014 hosted "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" on Fox TV and the National Geographic Channel -- and introduced a new generation to the mysteries of the universe.
Tyson's 13-episode "Cosmos" series presented some big shoes to fill. The original series was the most-watched show on U.S. public television for an entire decade. The host was Tyson's mentor, Carl Sagan, who died in 1996. Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, a writer on the original series, was a writer for the "Cosmos" reboot, which often gave a nod to Sagan through location or reference. The first episode, for example, began on the California coast in the same spot Sagan filmed more than three decades ago.
Despite all these similarities, or maybe because of them, acting as host was surreal for Tyson. "Everything we did, at least to me, was novel," he said. "I took pictures as though I was an anthropologist observing a tribe of filmmakers" [sources: Tepper, Kramer].
Once Considered Becoming an Exotic Dancer
Tyson may have earned a master's degree in astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin in 1983 and entered a doctoral program the following year, but he wasn't all work in the Lone Star state. He joined the university's wrestling and rowing teams, and was a member of the college's ballroom dance team. While he studied a variety of styles -- jazz, ballet and Afro-Caribbean -- he made his mark as a Latin ballroom dancer. In 1985, he won a gold medal when the UT dance team took first in a national Latin ballroom tournament [source: Cahalan].
Like most graduate students, Tyson was short on money. A few of his fellow male dancers began showcasing their skills in Chippendale-like clubs for extra cash, and Tyson, who described himself as "flexible from having danced and ... pretty cut from having wrestled," became intrigued. He went to a club to see them in action.
"They came out in jockstraps having been soaked in lighter fluid, asbestos jockstraps, ignited, coming out dancing to Jerry Lee Lewis' 'Great Balls of Fire,'" he said later. "I'm embarrassed to say that it wasn't until that moment when I said to myself, 'Maybe I should be a math tutor'" [source: NPR].
Was Recruited by Carl Sagan in High School
Tyson's interest in astronomy began at the tender age of 9 when he visited the Hayden Planetarium for the first time (yes, the same Hayden Planetarium he's run since 1996). By 11, he was dragging telescopes to the rooftop of his building in Brooklyn. He gave his first lecture in astronomy at 15 [source: Cahalan].
At age 17, Tyson was accepted to Cornell University and shortly thereafter received a letter from one of the university's most famous faculty members, Carl Sagan, who invited him to visit and tour the astronomy lab. As Tyson later recounted, that meeting continues to impact his life today.
"He met me on a Saturday morning in the snow, gave me a tour of his lab... then drives me to the bus station. It's snowing a little heavier -- he writes his home phone number on a sheet of paper, [and] said, "If the bus can't get through, call me, spend the night at our place,'" Tyson remembered. "To this day, I have this duty to respond to students who are inquiring about the universe as a career path in the way Carl Sagan responded to me."
Although Tyson ultimately opted to attend Harvard (because it had a larger astronomy department), he stayed in touch with Sagan throughout his life [source: Arizona Horizon].
Became an Internet Meme
This astrophysicist, author and frequent guest on "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show," isn't shy about sharing his feelings for Isaac Newton (he's a fan). During one interview, after expressing awe that Newton invented calculus before he turned 26, Tyson leaned back in his chair, raised both hands to the audience, rolled his eyes and said, "That's my man, right there."
It's a gesture that soon became one of the Internet's most enduring (and endearing) memes: the "we've got a bad---" guy. Using either an artist's rendering or an animated gif of Tyson's actions during the interview about Newton -- accompanied by the phrase, "Watch out, we're dealing with a bad--- over here" -- Tyson's likeness was used to poke fun at people bragging on the Internet or defying authority in a unconvincing way.
While his parallel life as an Internet meme was initially "creepy," Tyson said he eventually understood the "we've got a bad---" guy played an important role -- one that would likely be around long after he wasn't [source: Wolford].
Knows What he Looks Like at 85 Percent the Speed of Light
OK, so you thought Tyson's stint as the "bad---" Internet meme was funny? In 2014, his daughter, who was 18 at the time, put the interview that served as the meme inspiration into slow motion -- a move Tyson called "simultaneously disturbing and hilarious" when he shared it with his Twitter followers.
Then the Twitterverse got even better. Tyson tweeted that has "geek daughter" had completed some calculations and determined the slo-mo is what he would look like when moving at 85 percent the speed of light [source: Malow].
Having one Nobel Prize winner in the family is a huge accomplishment. But the extended Curie family had five winners – and one was awarded twice.
Author's Note: 10 Cool Things About Neil deGrasse Tyson
We know Neil deGrasse Tyson is a big fan, but perhaps Sir Isaac Newton isn't the only greatest astrophysicist in history. Tyson could very well take the honors, at least in a popularity contest. After all, his 1.9 million (and growing) Twitter followers can't be wrong.
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- Houston, Thomas. "Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson on Killing Pluto: 'All I did was drive the getaway car.'" The Verge. March 26, 2012. (April 10, 2014) http://www.theverge.com/2012/3/26/2903224/dr-neil-degrasse-tyson-killing-pluto-on-the-verge
- Judkis, Maura. "'Titanic' Night Sky Adjusted After Neil deGrasse Tyson Criticized James Cameron." The Washington Post. April 3, 2012. (April 10, 2014) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/arts-post/post/titanic-night-sky-adjusted-after-neil-degrasse-tyson-criticized-james-cameron/2012/04/03/gIQAZyZItS_blog.html
- Kramer, Miriam. "For 'Cosmos' Host Neil deGrasse Tyson, TV Filming an Otherworldy Experience." Space. April 12, 2014. http://www.space.com/25460-cosmos-show-neil-degrasse-tyson-filming.html
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- Malow, Brian. "Neil deGrasse Tyson at 85 percent the Speed of Light." Scientific American. April 2, 2014. (April 10, 2014) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/but-seriously/2014/04/02/neil-degrasse-tyson-at-85-the-speed-of-light/
- NPR. "Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains Why the Cosmos Shouldn't Make You Feel Small." Feb. 27, 2014. (April 10, 2014) http://www.npr.org/2014/02/27/283443670/neil-degrasse-tyson-explains-why-the-cosmos-shouldnt-make-you-feel-small
- NPR. "The Most Powerful Nerd in the Universe is a Scientific Anomaly." March 23, 2014. (April 10, 2014) http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/03/23/291440486/the-most-powerful-nerd-in-the-universe-and-a-unicorn
- O'Neill, Ian. "'Titanic' Accuracy Tightend by Neil deGrasse Tyson." Discovery News. April 2, 2012. (April 10, 2014) http://news.discovery.com/space/astronomy/neil-degrasse-tyson-tightens-titanic-accuracy-120402.htm
- Pasadena Journal. "Black News and News Makers: Neil deGrasse Tyson." Sept. 28, 2010. (April 10, 2014) http://www.pasadenajournal.com/african-american-business-and-community-news/1587-black-news-and-news-makers-in-history-dr-neil-degrasse-tyson
- StarTalk Radio. "Cosmic Queries: A Stellar Sampling." (April 10, 2014) http://www.startalkradio.net
- Tepper, Fabien. "Neil deGrasse Tyson to Host New 'Cosmos,' 34 Years After Carl Sagan's Original." CS Monitor. March 4, 2014. (April 10, 2014) http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2014/0304/Neil-deGrasse-Tyson-to-host-new-Cosmos-34-years-after-Carl-Sagan-s-original-video
- Tickle, Glen. "Neil deGrasse Tyson Interviewed God on Star Talk Radio." Geekosystem. Feb. 3, 2014. (April 10, 2014) http://www.geekosystem.com/neil-degrasse-tyson-interviews-god/
- Tyson, Neil deGrasse. "Pluto's Honor." Natural History Magazine. Feb. 1, 1999. (April 10, 2014) http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/read/1999/02/01/plutos-honor
- Wolford, Josh. "Neil deGrasse Tyson Talks About Being a Meme." WebPro News. March 26, 2012. (April 10, 2014) http://www.webpronews.com/neil-degrasse-tyson-talks-about-being-a-meme-2012-03